Setup FAQ: Do I need to adjust things in order?

If you’ve read Sketchy Setups (you should — they’re really good 😉), you’ll know that each setup proceeds in a set sequence. Most stuff you’ll read on setups doesn’t have give any particular weight to the order of each step.

Specifying an order for the process might sound like fussy finickiness on my part but it’s not. There’s actually a good reason for it.

You see, certain jobs are dependent on others being right first. For instance, it would be daft to file nut slots before you knew your neck relief was correct. In the worst case, lowering nut slots before the neck was straight enough could leave you with a ruined nut.

The Correct Order for Setup Steps

So what is the right order then? Here’s how I proceed and, more importantly, why.

Number 1: Relief

This is the most important thing to get right at the start. Setting action, intonation, nuts, etc. is pointless until your neck is where you want it to be.

Number 2: Tremolo Balance

For Strats and Strat-type terms — including Floyds and the like — you’ll want them to be floating at the desired angle before setting action (otherwise the action will change when you later adjust the angle).

Number 3: Action

Now you can set the action for all strings.

Number 4: Nut

Only now should you work on your nut. Doing so too soon is fraught with danger.

Number 5: Pickup Height

No point adjusting your pickups based on a string height that’s going to change. Wait until the other things are correct.

Number 6: Intonation

This has to be last. Has to be. Intonation depends on pretty much all of the following steps. If you go back and change one of the preceding settings, you’ll want to re-check intonation.

Backwards and Forwards

Now, just to make things a bit more complicated, you shouldn’t feel that you do these steps, in this order, and that’s it. You certainly can — and should almost expect to — go back and revisit steps as subsequent ones are completed.

For example, relief and action are — to an extent — ‘interactive’. Higher action can allow for a straighter neck, even if you play a bit harder. Likewise, a bit more relief will probably allow a lower action for a heavier player (certainly for someone playing mainly chords — it gets more complicated if you’re playing a lot higher up the neck). Also, removing the ‘bow’ or relief from a neck can make the action feel lower in areas. There’s a bit of to-and-fro needed to get things where you want them.

Especially if you’re still early in your setup journey, it’s not unusual to return and tweak a few times. You’ll eventually get a feel for things but don’t be afraid to go back to the start at any point.

Want a guide to walk you through each of these steps (in the correct order)? 

Check out these Sketchy Setups guides. They're the easiest and friendliest way to get your guitar or bass set up and playing its best.